Defenses of the Imagination: Jewish Writers and Modern by Robert Alter

By Robert Alter

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To Mme. Mandelstam’s tough-minded way of think­ ing, such a remark could only be sheer posturing. “There was nothing to envy. There was absolutely nothing at all uplifting about our suffering. ” And with this she goes on for three memorable pages to describe the actual experience of animal fear under a reign of terror, how time itself clots into endless heavy moments in the consciousness of the potential victim waiting day and night for the hidden agents to come. There is one aspect of Nadezhda Mandelstam as witness that poses special problems in getting a proper bearing on the contradictory figure of her husband, and that is the evi­ dent seriousness of her Christian belief, made particularly explicit in the second of her two volumes.

The consequences of a deed done in history are of a limited mag­ nitude, or at least eventually are no longer clearly traceable in the endless crisscrossings of subsequent historical events. The words of the poet-king, on the other hand, live on through an unending progression of literal and figurative “translations,” kindling the imagination of an Augustine, a Judah Halevi, a George Herbert, opening up the feelings of countless men and women to a sharing of anguish and long­ ing as facts of their humanity, to a trust in the coming of light after darkness.

The pressing dilemmas of history and art felt by the mod­ ern writer are likely to be sharpened if he is a Jew, and be­ come even more acute if he writes in Hebrew. The unique history of the Hebrew language and its modern literary re­ vival make Hebrew at once an anomaly among modern liter­ atures and a paradigm—illuminating through its very extremeness—of literature trying to cope with the maelstrom of modernity. If, as I have suggested, language is the memory-laden medium, the Hebrew language is so thoroughly suf­ fused with three millennia of historical and theological mem­ ories that some writers have felt they had to struggle active­ ly against it in order to make it speak personally for them.

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